The Push For Fair Access To Fiber Optic Internet In The US

A silent battle is going on between telecom giants and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB) over fair access to high speed Internet in rural areas of northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee.

fiber optic

Chattanooga, TN. Photo: Imilious / Wikimedia Commons

For reducing power outages, EPB created a fiber optic network that allows it to deliver more reliable energy as well as cable, phone and Internet services to residents in its 600-square-mile locality. This gives people access to some of the fastest Internet speeds in the nation, and the fees that residents pay will help the public utility company to cover the costs of deploying the infrastructure.

However, Internet and cable companies such as Cox and Comcast aren’t happy and have launched a battle against EPB.

The telecommunications industry has a lot to lose if local governments step foot in the fiber optic arena. Telecommunications companies are one of the biggest players in state governments; National Institute on Money in State Politics reports that Comcast and AT&T have contributed above $215,000 to state lawmakers in the recent election cycle in Tennessee alone.

Enter the Federal Communications Commission. A petition was filed by Chattanooga and Wilson, N.C., last month requesting the commission to preempt state limits on municipal broadband Internet access; and the FCC has just the power to do that.

“I have said before that I believe the FCC has the power — and I intend to exercise that power — to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The FCC’s inclusion isn’t going down well with state legislators, who criticize efforts made at the federal level to preempt state laws. Republican groups and bipartisan organizations also oppose the FCC’s move.

But cities and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) (representing Chattanooga) believe that fiber optic Internet has been a huge bonus for the city. It has created new jobs and brought the city to the front end of the curve.

This isn’t the only initiative taken to bring high-speed Internet to the residents of a small town in the US. Residents of Rockport, Maine are also receiving high-speed Internet, courtesy of Rockport officially launching its own municipally-owned fiber-optic Internet network. The partnership between the state governments and the town, a local telecom company ‘GWI’, and a college nearby, has led to the development of the Rockport network.

Fair access to high-speed Internet

With the Internet becoming an essential part of our lives and information common like public schools and libraries, fair access to high-speed Internet is becoming crucial in smaller cities. That is why cities like Lafayette, Louisiana have done the same thing as Rockport, Maine and Chattanooga, Tennessee and set up its own fiber optic network.

Telecom giants dominating the industry face little competition so they simply don’t care about fair access and expanding their networks to smaller cities in the US. Investment in fiber optic Internet is quite expensive, so for Internet giants, it’s easier and profitable to keep prices high speeds and supply low.

And the fact that the four biggest ISPs in the country are virtual monopolies indicate that it will be difficult to achieve fair access nationwide, because without any competition, they have no incentive to change their way of doing business.

Time Warner Cable, for instance, charges $70 per month for its Internet service that has downloading speeds 20 times slower and upload speeds 200 times slower than the residents of Rockport will enjoy.

That is why the efforts made in places like Chattanooga and Rockport are important. Not only does municipal Internet gives people daily access to fast speeds at a reasonable cost, it also reduces the power of big telecoms to control the Internet nationwide. The state and federal government should also consider helping to finish the job in small towns and rural areas.

“There’s a tremendous amount of rural areas where the constituencies tell me on a regular basis that they are underserved by the availability of broadband,” says Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.). “First and foremost, the duty of a representative is to represent the interests of his constituents.”

Fast Internet is important to the country’s development just like a phone services, electricity, and other utilities.

Let’s hope the developments of a few municipal fiber optic Internet networks will spark a trend that sets off a high-speed Internet revolution in smaller cities. Creating jobs and competing with other nations for Internet speeds depends on inexpensive and ubiquitous fiber optic connectivity, so we should welcome all the help we can get.